Drawing on qualitative evidence from community engaged academics, Wade B. Kelly and Lisa M. Given outline how two frameworks for context-informed, community engagement can support researchers and research institutions to foster social change.
Effective community engagement, as a potential pathway to societal impact of research, requires deep understanding and adept navigation of the highly complex ecosystem that shapes research and impact work. This knowledge is often the hard-earned product of years of work, but individual researchers shouldn’t be expected do this alone. Institutions and disciplines play critical roles in supporting academics to realise social change from their research in addition to the influence of funders, government policies, industry needs, and other factors inform the chances of success.
With increasing pressure from governments and funders to demonstrate research value to the community, the societal impact imperative is reshaping university-based research. In the United Kingdom, an increased emphasis on assessing research environments puts additional pressure on universities to materially support societal impact generation. This imperative shifts the markers of success from funding, awards, publications, and measures of academic impact (e.g. citations), exclusively, to also include demonstrations of economic, social, environmental, health, and other research benefits beyond academe. Researcher engagement with individuals and organisations beyond academe (e.g. with community groups, government, industry) enables societal impact through the translation and adoption of research outcomes by identifying and addressing stakeholders’ needs.
In our research we used findings from qualitative interviews with social sciences and humanities academics who engaged with their communities to produce two evidence-based tools to support researchers to foster social change: the Community Engagement for Impact (CEFI) framework, and the Contextual Model of Community Engagement (CMCE). These tools demystify the barriers and facilitators to community engagement (as a pathway to societal impact), which can be adopted and applied by researchers, university administrators, and disciplinary leaders.
Institutional and disciplinary leaders can apply these tools to the design of strategic planning and professional development opportunities to better support societal impact work.
They can also be used to educate researchers at all career stages, including PhD students, to understand the local and global contexts that shape research priorities and influence different approaches to engagement and impact work. Institutional and disciplinary leaders can apply these tools to the design of strategic planning and professional development opportunities to better support societal impact work. Together they aim to guide institutions, disciplines, and individual researchers to create strategic solutions to circumvent disciplinary, individual, and/or institutional obstacles that may create barriers to engagement and impact success.
Our research shows that the inability of universities to reflect and support the needs of academics engaged in societal impact work (such as providing incentives and recognition for that work), will continue to hold academics back from reaching their full potential in fostering social change. The institutional context remains a critical driver of academic behaviours and of the success of community engagement practices as pathways to impact.
Self-identified community-engaged academics also emphasised the rhetoric of societal impact support at their universities and how they struggled to identify tangible support to facilitate community engagement work. Despite the challenges, these participants navigated university, disciplinary, and personal goals to foster successful community partnerships. Our study demonstrates that community engagement and societal impact work requires alignment between researchers, universities, and disciplines.
The Community Engagement for Impact (CEFI) Framework
The CEFI framework addresses the research, university, and disciplinary continuum by outlining concrete initiatives that scholarly societies, researchers, and university administrators can take to reduce potential barriers to for impact work and to embed facilitators of community engagement.
CEFI In Practice
The CEFI Framework enables interrogation of researcher readiness for engagement, while detailing university and disciplinary facilitators and barriers. By mapping individuals’ capacity to engage with communities, relative to university and disciplinary expectations and rewards, CEFI supports all groups to better understand how, when, and where researchers can engage beyond the university.
Fig.2: Source: The community engagement for impact (CEFI) framework: an evidence-based strategy to facilitate social change by Wade B. Kelly & Lisa M. Given, taken from, Studies in Higher Education2023, Society for Research into Higher Education reproduced with permission of Taylor & Francis Ltd.
For example, an early-career researcher in a discipline that values action research (see the discipline dimension in Figure 1), who collaborates with a colleague with community connections (see the researcher dimension), and who is given release time from other duties (see the university dimension), has more capacity for community engagement. By understanding how the discipline can foster engagement, who an early-career researcher might approach for engagement support, and how a university can reward engagement beyond academe, individuals working in all three dimensions can better enable engagement activities.
Rather than creating a one-size-fits-all reward structure, universities must create incentives and rewards aligned to disciplinary contexts for impact work. A practice-based discipline with ready access to partners may more easily enable researchers to engage, while those in non-practice disciplines may require longer lead times and more institutional support. Administrators can use CEFI to assess internal aspects (e.g. promotion processes; funding schemes), while disciplinary associations can use CEFI to examine opportunities to foster engagement (e.g. conferences open to community-based delegates).
The Contextual Model of Community Engagement (CMCE) Framework
While CEFI looks at internal practices and policies of universities, individual researchers and disciplines, CMCE considers the external factors that influence the ability to conduct engagement work. The model addresses the geo-political context by considering the relationship of community, research, and governance to community engagement practices, so is intended to be used in parallel to application of the CEFI framework.
Fig. 1: source: The community engagement for impact (CEFI) framework: an evidence-based strategy to facilitate social change by Wade B. Kelly & Lisa M. Given, taken from, Studies in Higher Education2023, Society for Research into Higher Education reproduced with permission of Taylor & Francis Ltd.
CMCE invites users to explore their own context via a series of prompting questions. These prompts enable individual researchers, administrators, and disciplinary leaders to consider how best to support opportunities for community engagement. As we outline in the paper, prompting questions are useful for spurring conversation and reflection across the domains (see Fig.2).
For example, in the community context, researchers may consider, “do the proposed (community engagement) activities align with the community’s goals?” and “does the community have capacity to enact change arising from CE?”.
In the governance context, institutions may consider: “What government incentives can support (community engagement)?” or “do partners have resources to develop contracts?”.
Finally, in the research context, discipline leaders may consider: “how can equitable (community engagement) practices be assured across borders?” and “How can communities contribute meaningfully to projects without undue burdens?”
When CEFI and CMCE are used together, researchers, universities, and disciplines can ensure that engagement activities respond appropriately to community needs, while also addressing broader contextual factors influencing impact work. These tools, taken together, illuminate the complex research ecosystem influencing community engagement work with implications for the success of societal impact work, overall. Their application offers a throughline to begin disentangling the barriers to community engagement that academics may face, to overcome these challenges and increase the potential for positive social change.
This post draws on the authors’ article, The community engagement for impact (CEFI) framework: An evidence-based strategy to facilitate social change, published in Studies in Higher Education.
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